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It is with Junaid that I go for a pre-prandial walk in the morning. At that early hour, the Chittoorappan temple exudes a calm spirituality. The wooden lattice for oil lamps that surrounds all Kerala-style temples, visible in daylight is soot-black with countless years of worship. The temple tank has attracted the first batch of bathers. We pass a meat shop selling beef, pork, chicken and duck, all under the same roof. That’s just how syncretic Kerala is. At the meat ‘farm’ next door, the caretaker sends his ducks waddling off into the water. There’s a bridge across the backwaters and those iconic fishing nets, the net for which now comes from - you guessed it - China. "That’s why they’re called Chinese fishing nets," Junaid, quite correctly, points out. We cross the bridge and find ourselves at the charming Vaduthala Church.

I would like to tell you about the sumptuous kingly repast that I returned to but I’m presently sitting in a chair in the balcony, recovering. The view from this Athangudi-tiled gallery over the backwaters is splendid. The last time I was on these waters, I was taking an eleven-rupee ferry ride from Alleppey to Kottayam. Now that I have my own little boat, I use it to visit Shanmugam Road, Kochi’s Marine Drive, where I go on a bit of a spice-buying spree. I then point the Grey Heron in the other direction, and head to Sunset Point because I’m worth it.

Description: Shanmugam Road

Shanmugam Road

That’s the leitmotif of Chit-toor Kottaram. You’re lord of the realm, if only for a night or two. This is a unique privilege, and I can see many guests falling for it. (I’m made of sterner stuff.) Milton takes his role as a subject rather seriously and has been referring to me as ‘maharaja’ ever since I arrived. He sensibly downgrades it to ‘prince’ that evening. Next morning, how-ever, I’m back to being a king.

Description: traditional Kerala snacks

traditional Kerala snacks

My chat with Suresh Namboothiri took place in the gazebo over some traditional Kerala snacks. He narrated the story with precision. The palace had been abandoned since the 1960s. Then a school rented the premises in 1984. Suresh, a CA by profession, was practising in Dubai when his wife, Jayasree Varma, who is a member of the Cochin royal family, inherited the pal-ace. This was in 1996. Drawn by their legacy, they returned in 1998. That’s when the roofing was done. Proper restoration was only taken up in 2005 and entrusted to Inspiration, a Kochi-based architectural firm. Inspiration did such a good job, the project earned a nomination for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. It wasn’t an easy job though. Barring the wall structure everything had to be redone. The Padipura (gateway) had collapsed and was rebuilt on the basis of an old photograph. It is like you would restore a beloved family home. There are practical modern touches, like insect screens, glass doors that draw in natural light and wood laminate floors upstairs—not strictly heritage restoration stuff. Some things work, some don’t, but it all comes together.

There is a Kulam (bathing tank) lined with laterite stone on the premises. It has a traditional kulappura (entrance to tank). The old wooden door gracing it was brought from another royal home. The tank is presently home to or Namental fish but there are plans to convert it into a swimming pool.

The furniture is all made to old designs, the rosewood for which was personally sourced from a contractor friend - a Mr Patel. Replicas of a distinctive bed with a wooden canopy which was found in the pal-ace have been used in the downstairs bedroom. I particularly liked the swing in the living room (where the king once held audience), hanging not from chains but long logs of teak wood. It makes the motion somewhat...regal. A happy offshoot of all this - it seems to have inspired Suresh’s daughter to take up architecture as a profession.

Suresh ran the place himself for a couple of years and counts Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi among his former guests. He then handed over the keys to CGH Earth, whose ethos he found in sync with the offering. Serendipitously, Inspiration had previously worked on SwaSwara, a CGH Earth property in Gokarna.

Description:  a man performing indian ottanthullal folk dance of kerala ; india

 a man performing indian ottanthullal folk dance of kerala ; india

That evening, I’m introduced to Ottanthullal, a narrative dance form not witnessed by too many tourists. A temple art form in its inception, it is now performed in secular settings as well. What sets it apart is its single performer, playing all the parts. The presenter this evening is Maruthorvattom Kannan, who has been learning Ottanthullal since the age of five.

Description: Kerala sadya, vattayappam, and dessert

Kerala sadya, vattayappam, and dessert

“This is my life," says the thirty-two-year-old. For my pleasure, he enacts that lovely story where Draupadi asks Bheema to fetch her a lot us she covets. Heading out on the quest, Bheema finds a grizzled old Hanu - man blocking his path (or rather his tail doing it). In turns, I see Bheema, Draupadi and Hanuman, but only one person has taken the stage. The action is well paced and I watch with rapt attention.

The Cochin royals were never known for their ostentation and Chittoor Kottaram is no Rajasthani pleasure palace. The simple tiled roof and the modest size of the building speak for themselves. And yet it feels indubitably special. In an experience so near perfect, I have only two cribs: the shower area in the master bathroom should be provided with a shower caddy or at least a soap dish. And pancakes stuffed with coconut and banana and topped with an orange and honey syrup are just too much of a good thing.

If you ask me, I’d say Chittoor Kottaram takes hospitality to the next natural level of evolution. Once you’ve given your guests every imaginable luxury under the sun, pampered them till they’re spoilt silly, feasted them till they beg to fast, what more can you possibly do? I’m sitting inside the answer. You pare away all the extraneous stuff till you’re left with the true essentials.

Who wouldn’t want this to be their next holiday? Not a single pesky stranger in sight. No pressure to mingle. Staff, who fall over them-selves to please, yet there is nothing studied in their manner. Food that is unpretentious and whole-some. CGH Earth clearly is at the top of the game. They care about the environment for one—not a plastic bottle in sight, the sanitary bag in the bathroom made of recycled news-print. Which other place charging `20,000 a night can you think of that does that? The true non - hotel.

To be honest, as an only guest, I had expected to be bored stiff at best or driven over the edge by the solitude at worst. And yet here I was, on my last morning, a little depressed at the prospect of leaving my tiny kingdom behind. Enduring parting gifts helped lift my mood. There were cashews from the garden and a jackfruit sapling for the garden back home. And, at my request, some lawn grass which now runs rampant in my own modest kottaram.

The Information

Getting there

Chittoor Kottaram is in Cheranallur, 29km from the Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery. The airport is well serviced by flights from all Indian metros. The Delhi-Kochi fare is `5,500 onwards. Chittoor Kottaram is connected to Kochi by the Chittoor-Vaduthala bridge and is just 7 km from Fort Cochin.

The stay

Description: Chittoor Kottaram is a palatial three-bedroom homestay man-aged by the CGH Earth group

Chittoor Kottaram is a palatial three-bedroom homestay man-aged by the CGH Earth group. It can accommodate up to six people. There’s an exclusive boat at your disposal for transfers and sightseeing. Meals are vegetarian. Note that there is no menu and most of the food is unapologetically local in provenance (lunches are traditional Kerala sadyas served on plantain leafs; dinners tend to be more pan-Indian affairs). Of course, dietary preferences can be accommodated. Expect to be served deep-fried rice flour balls stuffed with jag-gery and suchlike with your tea. You can’t eat just one TARIFF ‘20,000 per night for two. Valid till September 30, This may seem steep but is actually great value for what’s on offer, including as it does all meals and taxes, use of the boat and cultural performances each evening. CONTACT 0484-3011711 (central reservations), cghearth.com

What to see & do

Given its proximity to Kochi, Chittoor Kottaram serves as an excellent base for exploring the city. You can do all the usual things from the comfort of your palace, including must-sees like Fort Kochi, Jew Town and its Jewish Synagogue and the bustling Broadway Market in Ernakulam. And you can visit many of these places in the comfort of ‘your’ boat.

Go for walks around the village. It's illuminating.

Take boat rides. Chittoor Kottaram organises backwaters and sunset cruises in any case.

Take in cultural performances including devotional songs, ottanthullal and many more.

Ask Annie to share a recipe or two. She’ll only be too happy to and will throw in a practical demonstration as well.

Description: the nearby St Augustine’s Church

the nearby St Augustine’s Church

If you have an interest in architecture, you might want to inspect the Holy Infants’ High School, est. 1909, right at the Varapuzha jetty. Don’t miss the nearby St Augustine’s Church, Moolampilly either.

For shopping, especially spices skip touristy Jew Town and head to Ashis Super Mercato on Kochi’s Marine Drive instead. This department store offers great quality, and the prices are reasonable. Also stock up on Sambar Powders and superlative peanut chikki here.

The 10-day Chittoorappan temple festival takes place in April. You might want to plan your trip around then.

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